College Supplemental Essay Tips for College Admission

A photo showing college advisors South Florida at International College Counselors offer supplemental essay tips for college admissions.

In addition to the 250-650 word Common Application essay (aka the Personal Statement) that is required by most colleges, many colleges also require one or more additional essays and/or short-answer questions specific to their institution. Supplemental essays are typically—though not always—shorter, and they ask students to answer a more specific prompt. A student’s main Personal Statement should help the admission committee understand who they are. The supplements allow the applicant to address topics beyond what the committee learns from the Personal Statement.

Writing supplemental essays adds an extra layer of challenge. However, students should see these essays as opportunities. These essays offer students a chance to showcase additional facets of their personality, experiences, and aspirations to the admission committee.

Colleges and universities that have supplemental admission essays release their prompts each summer, usually on or before August 1, which is when the Common Application opens for each new application cycle. We compile a list of these essay prompts on our Essay Prompt page, which we keep updated as the new prompts are released. (You’ll see that a number of colleges have already released their prompts for the Class of 2025.) Historically, the supplemental essay prompts have ranged from straightforward to a little offbeat.

Here are some tips to help students craft compelling and effective supplemental essays.

1. Understand the Prompt

Each college has its own set of prompts, each designed to elicit specific information about an applicant. Before you start writing, you need to make sure you fully understand what the prompt is asking. Break it down and consider:

  • What is the college looking to learn about you?
  • How can you relate your experiences to the prompt?
  • Are there multiple parts to the question? If yes, be sure to answer all parts.

2. Reflect on Your Experiences

Take some time to reflect on your personal experiences, achievements, and challenges. Consider what else a college should know about you that does not repeat what you wrote in your Personal Statement. Think about what makes you unique and how you can highlight these aspects in your essays. Consider the following:

  • Significant life events that have shaped your perspectives or goals
  • Extracurricular activities that demonstrate your passions and commitments
  • How your academic interests align with the programs and opportunities offered by the college

3. Pick Your Topic

Remember, every essay is another chance for you to promote yourself as a strong candidate for that college. When choosing a topic, tie your essay into something that is meaningful to you. Make sure the activities/experiences you choose for your supplemental essays reflect personal significance, your best character traits, and your potential to succeed at the school.

You can mention the same activity elsewhere in your application, such as in your Personal Statement or the Activities section of the Common Application, but if you do so, make sure you are adding something new in the supplemental essay. Do not repeat essay content that is found elsewhere in your application.

Some ideas of activities to write about:

  • An activity in which you held an active leadership role
  • An activity you were or have been really committed to in terms of time and involvement
  • An activity that is meaningful, e.g., one that reflects your heritage or a challenge you or a family member faced
  • An activity that relates to your future goals
  • An activity that is meaningful to you, but you were not able to share in another part of your application

4. Structure Your Essay Around a Story

Pick an anecdote that illustrates why the experience or activity is meaningful to you, how you made an impact, and what you gained from the experience. Perhaps you choose the time you were asked to spearhead a project at your internship, or when you presented your research after months in the lab. Be judicious about the details you share—each detail should advance your story. The details should also demonstrate your positive character traits such as initiative, leadership, problem solving, teamwork, or one or more of dozens of others.

If you held a leadership position or were involved with the oversight of a major project, large group of people, etc., write about what you did, and as importantly, why you were motivated and how you were shaped by your actions. If your participation helped you grow or develop, let the college know what that looked like specifically.

5. Show, Don’t Tell

Rather than simply stating your qualities or achievements, illustrate them with specific examples. Use anecdotes and detailed descriptions to bring your story to life. For instance, instead of saying “I am a leader,” describe a situation where you demonstrated leadership. If you can quantify your contributions, this will make your response really stand out. For instance, if you increased the number of subscribers for a company over the summer, try to put that into numbers — but only if the numbers are impressive. This helps to “prove” the contribution you made.

6. Be Authentic

Do not use ChatGPT or a parent to write your essay. Admissions officers read thousands of essays, and they can easily spot insincerity. Be genuine in your writing. Share your true thoughts and feelings rather than what you think the admissions committee wants to hear. Authenticity will make your essay stand out and resonate with the reader. If you are passionate about an experience or activity, you should have an easier time writing about it. Approach each essay with enthusiasm and thoughtfulness, and remember that your unique voice is your greatest asset.

7. Keep the Essay Focused and Structured

Your essay should have a clear structure with an introduction, body, and conclusion. Stay focused on the prompt and avoid tangents. While you may be tempted to showcase your many talents and activities, be sure to follow directions and answer the prompt. For example, if a college asks for ONE highlighted activity or experience, do not provide an exhaustive list. This one activity or experience can and should demonstrate aspects of your character that are otherwise not reflected in the application. Each paragraph should contribute to your overall message and provide a coherent flow.

8. Highlight Your Fit with the College

If the essay asks for you to explain why you want to attend a certain college, research the college thoroughly and understand its values, culture, and programs. Explain why you are a good fit for the college and how the college will help you achieve your goals. This demonstrates your genuine interest and commitment to the institution.

9. Edit and Revise

Writing is a process, and your first draft is just the beginning. Edit and revise your essay multiple times. Check for grammar and spelling errors, clarity, and coherence.

10. Common Pitfalls to Avoid

  • Clichés: Avoid overused phrases and ideas.
  • Vagueness: Be specific and provide concrete details.
  • Repetition: Don’t repeat information that is already included in other parts of your application.
  • Negativity: Focus on positive aspects and growth even when discussing challenges.
  • Skipping optional questions.

As you write supplemental essays, remember that this is your time to provide the admission readers with information that may not otherwise be reflected in your application. Omit details already shared in your personal statement. Demonstrate your dedication and commitment to your chosen activity or experience—and don’t be afraid to think outside the box.

Need help finding your story for the Common App essay and/or want support writing your other college admission essays? We offer amazing writing support services and more Common App essay tips through our sister company, Edit the Work.

For help with the essays or any other aspect of college admissions, visit or call 954-414-9986.